Professor Akbarzadeh: Election Results Confirm Iranian Regime’s Legitimacy at Risk, Potentially Non-existent

"Woman, life, freedom": London protest draws thousands following the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody on January 10, 2022. Photo: Vehbi Koca.

Reminding that elections are pivotal in justifying Iranian religious leadership and sustaining political legitimacy, Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh emphasizes that the recent turnout data from Iran’s elections serves as a stark wake-up call for authorities. He argues that the low turnout raised serious concerns for the regime’s legitimacy and underscores that the Iranian regime has come to recognize that its legitimacy is significantly at risk, perhaps even non-existent.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh, a distinguished Research Professor at the Alfred Deakin Institute, Deakin University, emphasizes that the recent turnout data from Iran’s elections serves as a stark wake-up call for authorities. He underscores the significance of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s consistent emphasis on the necessity of voter participation to validate the regime’s legitimacy. “Elections are pivotal in justifying Iranian religious leadership. Despite its reluctance to relinquish control, the Supreme Leader has adamantly advocated for the continuation of elections, emphasizing their importance in sustaining political legitimacy,” underlines Professor Akbarzadeh.

Iran witnessed its lowest voter turnout since the 1979 Revolution during the parliamentary elections held on March 1, 2024. Conservative politicians secured a dominant position in Iran’s parliament, maintaining control over the Islamic Consultative Assembly despite a record-low turnout amid widespread boycott calls. These results unfolded against the backdrop of heightened tensions following the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, sparking widespread protests that directly challenged the legitimacy of the regime. Akbarzadeh notes, “The low turnout raised serious concerns. The national figure of 41% is alarming, but it’s even more concerning when considering urban centers. For instance, in Tehran, the turnout was approximately 25%, significantly lower than the national average. Only a quarter of eligible voters cast their ballots in Tehran. I think the regime has come to recognize that its legitimacy is significantly at risk, perhaps even non-existent.”

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Akbarzadeh offers a critical analysis of the regime’s response to societal unrest and the evolving dynamics within the women’s empowerment movement against the backdrop of heightened tensions following the death of Mahsa Amini. Despite the regime’s efforts to suppress opposition, particularly in the aftermath of Mahsa Amini’s killing, Professor Akbarzadeh pays homage to the resilience of Iranian women who continue to defy oppressive norms and assert their rights.

Moreover, Professor Akbarzadeh highlights the consolidation of power by hardliners within the Iranian government and parliament, signaling a concerning homogenization of power in the hands of conservative circles. He underscores the regime’s increasing detachment from the electorate, fueled by a lack of responsiveness to popular demands and a narrowing space for dissent within the Parliament.

Looking ahead, Professor Akbarzadeh also warns of a turbulent future characterized by an increasingly hardline Iran and the potential return of the Trump administration in the US. He cautions against the uncertainty surrounding US policy towards Iran, particularly in light of past decisions that destabilized diplomatic efforts, such as the withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. Against this backdrop, Professor Akbarzadeh emphasizes the need for vigilance and foresight in navigating the complex geopolitical landscape, where the interplay between domestic discontent and international relations shapes the trajectory of Iran’s governance structures.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh with some edits.

The Iranian Regime Presents Itself as a Trailblazer to be Emulated by Muslims

Islamist populism has been a significant force in various political movements worldwide. In the context of theocratic Iran, how does sectarian Islamist populism manifest, and to what extent does it influence public discourse and policymaking?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: If you’re examining populism, populism in Iran revolves around the concept of the Ummah. The Iranian regime has risen to power with the principle of advancing the interests of the Ummah. While the Ummah is a global concept, within the Iranian context, it primarily refers to the Iranian nation. There’s a persistent notion that the Iranian nation, or the Iranian Ummah, will serve as a blueprint for the global Ummah to emulate. Therefore, when analyzing the rhetoric and messages from the Iranian leadership, it becomes evident that the Iranian revolution has paved the way to demonstrate to the global Ummah the necessary steps to establish an Islamic model of governance and justice.

That consistency has indeed been a cornerstone since the inception of the Revolution in 1979, as the notion of Iran leading the way was codified in the Constitution. This principle heavily influences Iranian foreign policy and continues to do so today. For instance, during the Arab Spring a decade ago, it was evident that the popular movements in many countries weren’t centered around Islam or an Islamic model of governance. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, a prominent player in the region, found itself grappling with how to respond effectively, essentially playing catch-up. However, Iran took a different approach, organizing events and conferences to portray the Arab Spring as an Islamic awakening. In their narrative, they depicted the Arab population as awakening to the model provided by Iran finally, positioning Iran as a trailblazer to be emulated. This narrative often revolves around the idea of representing and leading the Ummah globally, shaping Iranian stances on issues ranging from relations with the United States to Israel and events in Palestine.

Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh, a distinguished Research Professor at the Alfred Deakin Institute, Deakin University.

In the Iranian historical and political context, do differences in populism exist among various actors such as former and current presidents, Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei, judiciary and military figures?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: There isn’t a substantial difference among various actors within the Iranian elite. Primarily, they tend to utilize populism in their approach, with the key variance lying between the reformists and the more conservative factions, particularly concerning the religious dimension of populism. Notably, only President Muhammad Khatami sought to distinguish himself by deviating from the prevailing narrative of the Ummah and instead advocating for a dialogue of civilizations, emphasizing mutual learning among peoples. This perspective introduces a civilizational angle, although it does not entirely depart from the Islamic civilization framework. Khatami’s approach represents a nuanced departure from the dominant perspective, allowing for differentiation among various cultures and individuals.

However, with President Ibrahim Raisi assuming office and the Conservatives consolidating power in Iran, there’s been a resurgence of the original four-decade-old perspective on the Islamic Ummah. Iran now positions itself at the forefront of the global Islamic Ummah, portraying itself as the champion of the Muslim nations against the United States and Israel, among other adversaries.

Iran is frequently depicted as a theocratic authoritarian state, where the amalgamation of theocratic principles with sui generis authoritarian governance profoundly shapes both domestic policies and interactions with the international community. Within this framework, the notion of theocratic populism arises as a pivotal aspect of Iran’s political terrain. How does the Iranian government strategically utilize the principles of theocracy in a populist manner to garner popular support domestically and internationally?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: I think this further elaborates on our previous discussion and reinforces prior points. The Islamic Republic portrays itself as the defender of the Muslim Ummah, thereby implicating others as betrayers of this collective identity. Consequently, neighboring states are discredited for their perceived failure to uphold Islam’s interests on a global scale. Iran particularly criticizes Saudi Arabia, its primary regional rival, for allegedly neglecting the Palestinian cause and for entertaining the notion of normalizing relations with Israel through the Abrahamic Accords. This perspective of Iran leading the global Muslim Ummah permeates its actions both regionally and internationally.

Domestically, this perspective enables the leadership to brush aside dissent, opposition to governance, and the interests of women. For instance, women’s rights are often framed as Western imports, lacking indigenous roots or compatibility with the nation’s traditions. This justification is used to enforce compulsory hijab, suppress political opposition, and mandate obedience to Islamic and governmental authorities. The regime dismisses foreign concepts and practices, including women’s rights and individual liberties, to solidify its legitimacy.

The Supreme Leader Has Ultimate Control in Iran

Considering the complex interplay between Islamism, Islamist populism, theocratic populism, and theocratic authoritarianism, what are the main challenges and opportunities for political reform or evolution within Iran, particularly in light of the country’s unique blend of theocratic governance and sui generis electoral politics?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: It’s ironic how Iran boasts about its elections as evidence of the regime’s popularity, citing the participation of citizens at the ballot box. They highlight presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections, conveniently overlooking the meticulously orchestrated nature of these events. In reality, these elections are more of a carefully choreographed spectacle. The Guardian Council holds significant sway, determining candidates’ eligibility based on their allegiance to the Supreme Leader. This has led to absurd scenarios where sitting parliamentarians critical of the conservative faction, possibly aligned with the Reformists, are barred from running for re-election due to doubts about their loyalty to the Supreme Leader.

Elections are pivotal in the justification of Iranian religious leadership. Despite its reluctance to relinquish control, the Supreme Leader has adamantly advocated for the continuation of elections, emphasizing their importance in sustaining political legitimacy. Even during the last parliamentary election, the Supreme Leader urged participation, regardless of agreement with his views, recognizing the significance of electoral engagement in validating the regime. However, these elections are carefully managed to maintain control. While they serve as a facade of legitimacy, ultimate authority lies with the unelected Supreme Leader, who wields power over the armed forces, judiciary, and the composition of the Guardian Council, which in turn determines parliamentary candidates. The supreme leader has ultimate control. This orchestration creates the illusion of choice within an authoritarian framework designed to consolidate control.

Internet Emerges as the Next Battleground for the Regime

How does the Iranian regime utilize advanced IT and digital technologies to extend the reach of its repression and authoritarian digital information strategies both domestically and internationally?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: The Islamic Republic of Iran found itself navigating new territory during the Green Movement of 2009. With Facebook emerging as a primary platform for organizing protests, it became evident that social media, Facebook rather than Twitter, played a central role in coordinating dissent. Observing the potential of the internet as a catalyst for opposition, the regime recognized the danger posed by online mobilization. This awareness was heightened by the events of the Arab Spring and similar movements in the region, where social media was instrumental in galvanizing resistance against authoritarian regimes. The regime perceived online activism as a precursor to physical demonstrations, posing a significant threat to its survival.

They embarked on seeking solutions, studying China and other nations’ approaches. They realized the necessity of gaining control over the internet and social media. Consequently, they heavily invested in developing mechanisms to regulate online activity, drawing inspiration from China’s firewall strategy. This culminated in plans for a national intranet, effectively isolating Iranian internet users from the global web. This poses a significant threat to freedom of expression and access to information within Iran, as it disconnects citizens from the outside world. Once implemented, bypassing such restrictions becomes exceedingly challenging. Despite this, Iranian internet users have demonstrated resourcefulness, employing various methods such as VPNs and satellite connections. Nevertheless, the establishment of such controls remains a formidable obstacle to accessing information for Iranian citizens.

The regime has also advanced its surveillance capabilities with sophisticated technologies like facial recognition, strategically deploying cameras in public spaces to monitor the population closely. This allows the regime to swiftly respond to potential protests by deploying security forces and identifying individuals of interest using facial recognition software. Consequently, the internet has emerged as the next battleground for the regime to assert control and stifle dissent. This ongoing struggle presents significant challenges, and while the regime hasn’t definitively triumphed in securing and manipulating the internet, the risks posed by their efforts are considerable.

Iran Relies on Russia and China to Safeguard Its Interests in International Forums

President Vladimir Putin of Russia and then-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Yerevan, Armenia, attending the session of the supreme Eurasian Economic Council on October 1, 2019. Photo: Gevorg Ghazaryan.

It is widely acknowledged that authoritarian regimes engage in extensive and intensive collaboration among themselves. In this context, how does the Iranian regime collaborate with countries such as China, Russia, etc., to expand its capacity to enforce its theocratic authoritarianism?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: Iran’s strategic outlook has indeed turned towards China for technological expertise, particularly in internet control and surveillance, as previously mentioned. Additionally, Iran seeks Chinese investment in its infrastructure, facilitated through China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Iranian economy has long suffered under sanctions, necessitating external investment and access to Chinese technology to mitigate the adverse effects. Consequently, China emerges as a pivotal player in Iran’s quest to address the economic challenges and bolster its armed forces.

Similarly, Russia holds significant importance for Iran, albeit in a different capacity. While Russia’s role may not primarily involve technological transfers, it provides crucial diplomatic and political protection to Iran. This relationship has intensified due to escalating tensions between Russia and the United States, aligning their interests further. Iran actively demonstrates its commitment to and value for Russia, particularly in countering Western influence and Western hegemony. This convergence of interests is evident during the conflict in Ukraine.

Iran has developed its own drone technology, largely indigenous, which has proven highly effective, especially with low-flying drones capable of evading radar detection. These drones, more cost-effective than sophisticated US models, have demonstrated their utility in overwhelming defense systems. Russia, impressed by their performance in hitting Ukraine, has invited Iran to establish a drone manufacturing base in its territory. This exchange represents a transfer of relatively low-tech capabilities from Iran to Russia, underscoring Iran’s desire to maintain close ties with Russia on the global stage.

Iran relies on Russia and China to safeguard its interests in international forums such as the United Nations Security Council, particularly when facing resolutions or sanctions. However, while Iran expects unwavering support, historical precedent suggests that Russia and China carefully weigh their own economic and strategic interests before fully backing Iran. Nevertheless, from Iran’s perspective, maintaining strong relationships with Russia and China is a prudent move, serving its long-term interests in navigating international politics.

Low Turnout in Elections Raised Serious Legitimacy Concerns

Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Hamaney on billboard in Tabriz, Iran on August 11, 2019.

The latest Iranian presidential election and recent parliamentary elections saw a historically low turnout, signaling widespread disillusionment with the Mullah regime among the electorate. To what extent do you perceive the record-low turnout of 41% in the recent elections, which was the first in the aftermath of the killing of Mahsa Amini, as indicative of deeper societal shifts and potential challenges to the legitimacy and future of the current regime in Iran?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: This incident served as a significant wake-up call for the authorities. As previously mentioned, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has consistently emphasized the importance of participation in elections. He has reiterated, "Even if you disagree with me, exercise your right to vote." For him, voting signifies the legitimacy of the regime regardless of dissenting opinions. Thus, the low turnout raised serious concerns. The cited national figure of 41% is alarming, but it’s even more concerning when considering urban centers. For instance, in Tehran, the turnout was approximately 25%, significantly lower than the national average. Only a quarter of eligible voters cast their ballots in Tehran.

This revelation is indeed shocking, though not entirely unexpected given the sentiments expressed during Mahsa Amini’s tragic death while in custody over an alleged hijab violation. The outcry from women in the streets condemning the Supreme Leader and calling for an end to dictatorship was unmistakable. Their demands extended beyond mere choice regarding the hijab; they contested the legitimacy of the Supreme Leader and the Islamic regime as representatives of the nation. Unfortunately, this protest was brutally suppressed, as authoritarian regimes often resort to brute force to maintain control. They deploy soldiers and security forces to quash dissent, resorting to violence, torture, and imprisonment. Regrettably, this ruthless tactic proved effective once again.

I think the regime has come to recognize that its legitimacy is significantly at risk, perhaps even non-existent. The turnout for the election, with only 41% nationwide and 25% in Tehran, serves as another stark reminder and indicates the depth of the regime’s troubles.

Iranian Parliament Tilts Further Towards Hardline Stance within Conservative Camp

In light of the recent legislative elections held on March 1, could you provide an analysis of the historical significance of these elections within the context of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s political evolution and the broader trajectory of its governance structures?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: We’ve already addressed the issue of lack of legitimacy, which remains a significant factor. What this election has underscored is the consolidation of power by the hardliners across all branches of the Iranian government. The judiciary, the Presidency, and the Parliament are now firmly under their control. In the past, there was some level of diversity and dissent within the Parliament, even if it leaned towards conservatism. However, the current composition of the Parliament lacks that diversity. It’s now a predominantly conservative body, indicating a concerning homogenization of power and personnel in Iran.

Now, with that being said, we’re also observing some differentiation within the conservative faction. Conservatives can now even be categorized into pragmatists and hardliners. For instance, take Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who held a prominent position in the previous Parliament. He’s a conservative, not a reformist. However, he’s not gaining traction in this election, even finding himself sidelined. This shift indicates a consolidation of power within the conservative ranks, leaning more towards the hardline stance. So, what does this indicate? It suggests that the regime is further distancing itself from the population, creating an even wider gap between the government and the people. The leadership is increasingly detached from the electorate. 

What does this imply for policy? I believe it has rather dire political implications because of this growing disconnect. They no longer feel compelled to heed popular demands, perhaps even feeling they don’t need to respond due to their increasing isolation. The Parliament has evolved into more of an echo chamber, devoid of internal challenge. With the President, Parliament, and judiciary all aligned with the conservative hardline ideology, it becomes a reinforcing echo chamber for their ideological convictions regarding Iran’s direction and both domestic and international policies.

In the wake of the tragic killing of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, how would you characterize the regime’s response to the perceived erosion of its authority, particularly in relation to its handling of societal discontent, and what insights can we glean from the evolution of the women’s movement regarding advancements in women’s empowerment within Iran?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: In the wake of Masha Amini’s killing and amidst the "Women, Life, Freedom" movement, what became evident was that the grip of fear factor was diminishing, losing its sharpness. The fear factor wasn’t enough to disperse the crowds from the streets. The public rallies couldn’t be quelled solely through suppression. I make this statement with some caution because it did take the authorities about a year or so to suppress the popular movement, which they eventually managed to do. As a result, public rallies are no longer commonplace. 

However, I believe this suppression succeeded not merely through brute force, but also due to the absence of organized leadership within the opposition. There was no clear alternative presented to the Islamic Republic. The opposition was fragmented into various groups—leftists, loyalists, liberals, among others—resulting in a lack of a unified voice. Despite everyone being united against the regime, the absence of unity for an alternative significantly weakened the opposition movement. 

However, I also want to acknowledge and pay tribute to the women of Iran for their resilience and courage in standing up for themselves over the years. Even now, on social media, one can witness Iranian women walking in the streets, going shopping, going about their daily lives without wearing the hijab or headscarf, displaying remarkable fearlessness. I believe it’s crucial to recognize their bravery.

A Turbulent Ride Ahead with an Increasingly Hardline Iran and Potential Return of Trump in the US

The Iranian leadership appears confident in the prevailing "saner heads" in Washington, leading them to continue grandstanding and goading the United States in the absence of a nuclear deal. With the upcoming elections and possible return of Donald Trump to power in the US, how do you anticipate the shifting political landscape might affect Iran’s strategy and its relationship with the West?

Shahram Akbarzadeh: Iran has mastered the art of brinkmanship. Throughout various negotiations, particularly in the realm of nuclear talks, Iran has consistently pushed to the brink, aiming to extract maximum concessions from its partners, including the United States and Europe. Remarkably, this strategy has proven effective because its interlocutors have generally been rational actors. Iran has engaged with different administrations, finding success because the responses from US administrations have been rational, as have those from European counterparts.

With the possibility of Donald Trump returning to office, it’s uncertain whether the Administration in Washington would act rationally. There’s a strong likelihood of irrational behavior. In fact, the reality of the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, despite years of negotiation and its proven effectiveness for around two and a half years, underscores this concern. The Trump Administration opted to pull out with the promise of securing a better deal, which never materialized. This decision destabilized the nuclear deal and set us on a path of heightened tension and uncertainty. Consequently, with the potential return of Trump to office, we are facing an extremely uncertain future. With conservative hardliners in power in Iran and an unpredictable US administration, we’re in for a turbulent ride. Predicting what will happen next becomes exceedingly difficult in such a volatile scenario.

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